Thursday, December 31, 2009

Riverside Drive

Designed by Olmsted and Vaux (the fellows who did the same for Central and Prospect Parks) in 1873, Riverside Avenue - it became a Drive in 1908-

was basically a real estate speculation. The idea was to transform an area of small farms, some houses and many squatters’ shacks into a new Fifth Avenue, which had begun to fill up with the overstuffed mansions of the city’s leading families. O and V’s street design followed the rough natural curves of the hilly path and called for a long narrow park between the avenue and the open train tracks below. The avenue and its park would run from 72nd Street to the Claremont Hotel, just north of the current location of Grant’s Tomb.

According to Peter Salwen’s charming and definitive book on the history of the Upper West Side, although the new avenue attracted some very wealthy folk who built mansions, it never really competed with Fifth Avenue for New York’s old money. Perhaps this was due to the noise from the trains passing below, the foghorns and whistles of the boats on the river, and the noisome atmosphere provided by a north wind passing over the slaughterhouses near 60th Street.

Although the mansions did not appear in the numbers expected, a remarkable number of apartment buildings went up during the 1910’s and 20’s. And that, with only a few more modern additions, is the Riverside Drive of today.

So if I had to assign a personality to Riverside Drive, it would be that of a boulevardier tamed by age. With the Robert Moses improvements to the

park during the 30’s, the train noises disappeared and the park grew to be what it is today. What had originally been intended for the super-wealthy nouveaux riche ended up a boulevard for the upper middle class – many of them Jewish. And, in my opinion, one of the world’s great residential boulevards – less well known than Central Park West and Fifth Avenue, but that is probably because tourists nearly never make their way to see its pleasures.

Monday, December 28, 2009

AJ Liebling's New York

I've just finished reading an anthology of the writing of AJ Liebling, a journalist who wrote for the New Yorker for nearly thirty years, primarily about war and sports. His columns on World War II, where he spent a good deal of time with the troops in Tunisia, capture both the boredom and the sudden activity of war time. But it is his columns on boxing that are real New York masterpieces. He describes Stillman's Gym so well you can smell it, and he treats all his subjects with unfailing respect and grants them a great deal of dignity. He lets you feel New York of the 30's and 40's like few other writers - his office mate and contemporary Joe Mitchell comes to mind. He is definitely worth a look, especially for those who prize first class writing about NYC.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How a blizzard changed New York

In March 1888 a surprise blizzard hit the entire East Coast. It left 21 inches of snow in NYC. Thousands of telegraph wires came down, and many people were trapped on the elevated trains. Some enterprising folks put ladders up to the trains and charged $10 to let people climb down.
Two results of all this: the wires were buried underground as quickly as possible and the first serious thoughts were given to creating a subway. Sixteen years later the subway became a reality.  It ran along happily during last night's snowstorm.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Walker in the City Re-visited

One of my favorite books about NYC (and the inspiration for the title of this blog) is A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. Kazin was one of the 20th century's great critics of American literature and he continued to write essays and memoirs until his death in 1998. This memoir of his childhood and adolescence in Brooklyn's Brownsville was first published as a series of New Yorker pieces and then put out as a collection in 1951.
Here's what I love about this book: Kazin has a way of putting you in a place - through the images, sounds, even the smells - that is so vivid and sensual. He is an excellent listener and captures his characters' eccentricities. For example, he describes how Communists and Socialists pronounce the word "Negro" differently - with the Communists showing a pride of ownership of the term, because they have made the Negro part of their cause. That is a very subtle distinction.
Kazin loves his parents very much - his often unemployed house painter father and his dressmaking mother are very sympathetically presented. Despite their struggle for money (much of the book takes place during the Great Depression) they are able to put out a very good Sabbath dinner. It is rare for an author to admit he actually cares for his parents. He also loves Brownsville, although he is learning how much more there is to the world than his familiar tenements and pushcarts.
The most lyrical part of the book comes at the end - when Kazin walks across his neighborhood to visit a nearby library. Finally, he escorts a girl to a park that overlooks distant Manhattan. You know that that is where his future lies, but you sense his ambivalence at leaving the Brownsville he has chronicled so completely and beautifully.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Zora's Recession Indicator

Zora, the famously knowledgeable tour guide, told me she gauges the depth of the recession by the length of the line for $1.00 pizza slices at Two Brothers Pizza on 6th 
Avenue. This afternoon, the line ran out on to the sidewalk. Not good.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Trader Joe's 72nd Street store confirmed!

The West Side independent confirms that there will indeed be a Trader Joe's opening on the corner of Broadway and West 72nd Street some time in 2010. Based on the progress of the construction, my guess would be for the first half of the year, perhaps even the first quarter.